Jarlath Henderson: Mending through Music and Medicine

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Jarlath Henderson, a rising star of Irish music, sings centuries-old traditional songs with beautiful, haunting clarity. Heralded for his exploration of traditional song in the past few years, Henderson first came to acclaim as a virtuoso of the uilleann pipes, one of the iconic instruments in Irish music. For some, the instrument takes decades to master. But not Henderson. He was recognized for his prodigious skill when he was just 17, the youngest winner of the BBC Young Folk Award. It launched a career of international touring and a featured spot on the soundtrack of the Disney Pixar hit Brave. Somehow, in the remaining time, he earned a medical degree and a hospital position as an acute care physician. Like his work on broken bones in the emergency room, Henderson hopes his artistry can play a small role in mending the fractures of a historically divided world.

The city of saints and scholars

The tradition Jarlath Henderson carries on originates in an area long torn by civil conflict. Half the size of Hampton Roads, with approximately the same population, the six counties of Northern Ireland are the last remnant of the United Kingdom on the Emerald Isle. Henderson was born in Armagh, where he was introduced to the rich Irish music tradition. Armagh is a city founded in the fifth century as a center of faith and learning by the legendary Saint Patrick. Nicknamed “the city of saints and scholars,” the city is Northern Ireland in microcosm. At its center, three great institutions stand in a roughly equilateral triangle. Two are cathedrals of the rival Protestant and Catholic faiths, both named St. Patrick’s; the third is the Armagh Observatory, a science center whose parkland features a scale model of the solar system.

“When I was 10 or 11 my mother took me to the pipers club in Armagh,” Henderson says. “The sound intrigued me, and it was a new challenge.” Founded in 1966, the Armagh Pipers Club is a non-religious haven in a territory often riven by sectarian-tinged political conflict. Whether someone was nationalist or unionist, the only focus was the music.

“I had great teachers, and I was fairly deft. However, I was a scatty, slightly hyperactive kid. It took me a long time to realize how seriously I would have to practice. In the first four months, I had a landslide moment, and I realized it was something I was destined to do.”

He started practicing every night and early mornings before school and listening to old LPs while he did his homework. It also opened a new social world; Henderson met other kids from across Ireland, playing every summer in music festivals. “It was something I really wanted to do.”

Sharing songs on tour

It turned out to be something he did very well. “The break came with the Young Folk Award. That was probably the best thing for me, in terms of pushing my career nationally.” His pairing with Ross Ainslie, a bagpipe prodigy from Scotland, launched a brilliant, long-running collaboration.

Touring, especially playing in traditional music festivals, opened Henderson’s eyes and to a wider world of music, and gave him insight into the deeper connection between different forms. “You realize how small a world it is. It happened at a good time for me. I was ready for the challenge. I am from the north of Ireland, very close to Scotland. My accent is similar and so is the music, with people moving backward and forward here for hundreds of years. They often share songs. It’s also true of the south of Ireland, and England and Wales as well. Sometimes it is hard to work out where a tune originated. If I travel further south to Brittany, the Celtic areas of France, or Galicia in the north of Spain, there are a lot of similar tune types. And at the same time people in Ireland tended to migrate to Canada and America, people in the north of Spain were moving to Argentina. All took with them their heartbreaking songs about emigration and unrequited love.”

Henderson chooses his material based on a fundamental musical and lyrical emotional connection that transcends time. “The same emotions existed in 1718 as 2018,” he says. “A song doesn’t know where it comes from and doesn’t care what the people performing them consider themselves. It may do more harm than good to focus on differences, on people on one side of a border or the other. Things like Spotify divide music into categories, put everything in boxes. Maybe that is missing the point.”

Living tradition

Being true to a tradition requires keeping it vital. “It is the difference between being an artist and a curator. I don’t want to do what is safe and easy. Some people talk about traditional music as if it is historical, representing bygone days. That is not it at all. In Belfast, in Glasgow, the culture and tradition are alive and well. For me, the modern always filters through. Any living tradition is influenced by the day-to-day.” Henderson’s 2016 debut solo album Hearts Broken, Heads Turned is augmented by a decidedly 21st-century electronic palette. (His Richmond Folk Festival performances will be acoustic.) The album also marked a new direction for Henderson, as he embarked on an exploration of traditional songs from Northern Ireland and, in particular, County Armagh.

“Music is part of who we are”

Henderson is backed on vocals on the album by his sister Alana, a rising cellist and songwriter. “Music is part of who we are as a family,” says Henderson, “We’re not the Von Trapps or anything, but it is something we all did. My father is a piper. Mom sings. My older sister is head of a music department at a school in Essex.” In addition to delivering traditional songs with singing that is characterized by clarity and intensity, and his mastery of the uilleann pipes, Henderson is classically trained in flute, and an adept guitarist.

“You have to feel like you are doing all you are able, have all talents going,” Henderson says. It’s a principle he exemplifies.

He took his qualifying exams for medical school at roughly the same time as he won the BBC award and had to retake exams and repeat an entire year when touring and releasing albums interfered with his six years of studies and two as an intern. His part-time position at a Glasgow Hospital allows him to balance two normally all-consuming vocations. “Everyone said that I would have to choose, music or medicine. But I could never settle on just one.”

Perhaps the music of a divided land is uniquely suited for bridging seeming irreconcilable differences—between cultures, between people, between the insistent present and the irretrievable past.

“People should come if they want to hear sincere music that is fundamentally traditional yet still alive and well,” Henderson says, adding with a touch of mischief, “We’ll challenge their impressions and lift their spirits with our sad, depressing songs.”

Jarlath Henderson will perform at the Richmond Folk Festival on October 12-14, 2018. Read more and listen to samples on his bio page.